Politics

The Éric Piolle Effect: Grenoble’s Green Transition

A big city on a human scale, Grenoble has been an outsider in the world of French local politics since the 1960s. A coalition of Greens, the Left, and citizen groups came to power in 2014. The Alpine city is today a laboratory for municipal ecology and its mayor, Éric Piolle, wants a second mandate. In the run-up to municipal elections in March, Quentin Ariès looks at the track record of “ecology in one city”. Between difficulties with different levels of government, the classic trap of moving rather than fixing problems, and persistent security issues, the challenges are many. That said, the energy unleashed in five years of city government has drawn support from across the progressive spectrum. With weeks to go, Grenoble is looking to the future, hoping to keep its place among green cities.

Grenoble, Friday November 22nd 2019.

In the centre of this city of 158 000 people, 30 journalists and activists crowd a cafe for a Grenoble en commun (Grenoble in Common) press conference on the eve of a day of protest against violence against women.

Grenoble en commun is the collective led by Éric Piolle, the city mayor from Europe Ecology – The Greens (EELV) elected in 2014. This is the second press conference since Piolle declared he was running in March 2020. They speak about a centre to help women press domestic abuse charges and the link between violence against women and climate change.

The elements of the speech are tried and tested. The mayor and his team are the only Greens to lead a French city of over 100 000 inhabitants. The stakes are high: if Piolle is re-elected in 2020, this experiment in local green government will no longer seem like a utopian dream.

The former engineer is supported by nearly all parts of the French Left. Éric Piolle wants to build “a humanist arc” grouping French progressive and green movements. Despite their differences, all currents share the hope that French politics will not be limited to a confrontation between the liberal President Emmanuel Macron and the far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

Attending the press conference, Monique, who works in the culture sector, couldn’t be happier: “I’ve been like this since his election. Now we can breathe and I’m happier in my city.”

Fertile ground

Dubbed La cuvette (“the bowl”) due to its location between three mountains, Grenoble has been a green stronghold for 30 years. Activism is deeply rooted and the Greens have been a local force since the 1988 mayoral election. When the Left returned to power in 1995, they ran the city with the Socialists.

Since the 1980s, the city is renowned for being a step ahead when it comes to the environment. From the reintroduction of tramlines and the bike rental service Métrovélo to the Caserne de Bonne, a green district opened in 2010, Grenoble is often cited as an example for other French and European cities. National and international media coverage abounds and local politicians make visits to learn from the Grenoble experiment.

Éric Piolle first stood for office as a regional councillor in 2010. A self-proclaimed “left-wing catholic”, father of four, he studied to be an engineer in the Alpine city and never looked back. The following year, 2011, he was fired from US tech firm Hewlett-Packard for refusing to enact a relocation plan. His family-man profile appeals to activists, party officials, and civil society. While his talk of the necessity of radical green and progressive politics is genuine, his image is that of a man in a suit (albeit without a tie) and daily cyclist.

Since the 1980s, the city is renowned for being a step ahead when it comes to the environment. Grenoble is often cited as an example for other French and European cities.

Candidate in the 2014 municipal elections, his promises focused on accelerating the green transition. Six years on, the progress made is clear. Contracts for more than 300 street billboards have not been renewed, freeing up public space. The speed limit has been reduced from 50 to 30 kilometres per hour on main roads. Grenoble now boasts the largest low-emissions zone in the world and has restricted access to diesel vehicles. Cycle paths have been built and 15 000 trees will be planted by 2030. The first 100 per cent organic urban farm in France has been opened and vegetarian options are now available in municipal canteens.

If that was not enough, in 2020, 100 per cent of the city’s energy should come from renewable sources.

The ecology of sobriety

But Piolle’s record distinguishes itself most from that of his socialist predecessors on ethics and local democracy. One of his team’s first moves as municipal representatives was to cut their allowances budget. Salaries were reduced by between 9 and 23 per cent depending on roles and responsibilities. The dedicated fleet of cars has been almost entirely replaced by shared bicycles and food expenses for officials and their guests have been slashed by 78 per cent.

Some socialists and opponents on the Right argue against aspects of this sobriety, particularly the city’s business policy. Subsidies for economic projects have been reduced, limiting the funding for public-private partnerships. In December 2017, the city of Grenoble sold 3.4 million euro in shares in a local technology firm to the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region. The Minatec project concerned is a public-private company that brings together various nanotechnology players in and around Grenoble.

“There is a debate to be had about the dynamism, the attractiveness, and the stakes of the ecological transition,” explains Simon Persico, a political science researcher at Sciences Po Grenoble. “As it stands, the answer to the green transition isn’t going to come from Silicon Valley.”

From the perspective of Grenoble city government, business policy lies with the region and there is sufficient regional funding to draw new projects in. However, detractors retort that budgetary sobriety and reticence towards large projects such as new stadiums make the city less attractive for national and international investors.

“There is a debate to be had about the dynamism, the attractiveness, and the stakes of the ecological transition,” explains Simon Persico, a political science researcher at Sciences Po Grenoble. “As it stands, the answer to the green transition isn’t going to come from Silicon Valley.”

For the researcher, that a Green does not back large-scale projects is nothing surprising, “That’s not his vocation. The mayor wants to manage what already exists and spend city money with care.”

Running what already exists in Grenoble is a major task. There is no lack of infrastructure, which has multiplied ever since the 1968 Winter Olympics. The Greens were at the centre of protests against building the Stade des Alpes. The 20 000-seater stadium was finished in 2008 in the Parc Paul Mistral, one of Grenoble’s few city-centre parks. The green mayor is more interested in making the city a candidate for 2022 Green Capital of Europe. The European Commission rewards the label to cities at the forefront of adapting to climate change.

Participatory budgetary is another achievement worth stressing. Since 2016, almost 4 million euro has been distributed to projects for biodiversity and urban agriculture. Orchards, wetlands, composting areas, and nesting houses for birds and bats have been put forward and managed as part of projects led by citizens and organisations from Grenoble.

A new model

The policies are paying off. In 2018, almost 15 per cent of journeys within the city were taken by bike, an increase of 32 per cent in six years according to INSEE, the French statistics agency. A new bike path, opened in November 2019, recorded almost 30 000 cyclists in just 13 days. The use of public transport has risen by 14 per cent since 2014.

However, according to a September 2019 study by ATMO Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, a regional air quality monitor, the new traffic plan has not improved air quality. Instead, pollution has shifted to other parts of the city area. This reality check underlines how, even for a municipality led by Greens, benefits of environmental policies often do not correspond to the short time horizon of electoral politics.

The management of municipal and social services is another sticking point. While the municipality can boast that over five years almost 2200 social housing units have been built or are near completion, the outgoing team also faced a labour dispute over the reorganisation of (now free) municipal libraries. Moreover, a 14-million-euro savings plan has left several cultural institutions short of resources.

The Green-led majority has not managed to rid Grenoble of the “two-faced” image it has held for over two decades. On the one hand, the city is innovative, supportive, and up to date on climate issues. But at the same time, it remains prey to gang and mafia activity.

In May 2018, the administrative court of Grenoble forbid the organisation of citizen referendums. The court judged that the specifics of this instrument, allowing citizens to put forward topics for discussion at the municipal council through the collection of 2000 signatures, violated the French constitution. Other key measures, such as the bringing public services back under local authority control and reducing public sector parking allowances, have made similarly slow progress.

While Grenoble is seen as a state-of-the-art city in fighting climate change, it also makes headlines, rightly or wrongly, for a lack of security. In 2010, a casino robbery ended in a car chase and days of rioting in working-class districts of the city ensued. According to France 3, attacks on individuals increased by 53 per cent from 2017 to 2018. Éric Piolle himself has admitted the seriousness of the situation.

The French government assigned around 60 more police officers to the city between 2018 and 2020. But the Green-led majority has not managed to rid Grenoble of the “two-faced” image it has held for over two decades. On the one hand, the city is innovative, supportive, and up to date on climate issues. But at the same time, it remains prey to gang and mafia activity. Grenoble’s proximity to the Italian border, among other factors, has made it a hub for the drugs trade and other illicit activities.

Objective 2020

The main objective for the administration’s supporters is to hold on to Grenoble. They have the wind in their sails. The latest polls, published in late February, found that 36 per cent of people intended to vote for Éric Piolle, an extended lead compared to October figures. His main competitor is Alain Carrignon, mayor of Grenoble from 1983-1995 and a former conservative minister. Despite serving a prison sentence for misuse of public funds in the late 1990s, Carrignon is in second place on a stable 20 per cent.

According to Simon Persico, “The return of Alain Carrignon is ideal for Piolle. He couldn’t have asked for better”. The conservative councillor and his activists have campaigned for years against the Green majority. Mocking the mayor as the “Great Leader”, they published a blog of caricatural articles about the cleanliness and safety of the city. In response, Éric Piolle filed a libel suit in early January 2020. The third-placed contender is the République en Marche MP Émilie Chalas on 18 per cent.

To avoid holding multiple offices, Éric Piolle and his deputies play no part in the metropolitan executive. To be successful, municipal ecology thus requires allies at other levels to meet its aims.

While the overall position seems positive, there are still plenty of challenges for Piolle’s team to address, even if they are not always the ones in charge. Since 2015, many municipal responsibilities, including mobility, sanitation, and planning, have been transferred to the Grenoble-Alpes metropolitan area, which spans Grenoble as well as 48 other municipalities.

The Greens are part of the management team for this 443,000-inhabitant metropolitan area and are responsible for finances and transport, among other portfolios. However, negotiations with the Socialists and other local representatives proved difficult in the early years.

To avoid holding multiple offices, Éric Piolle and his deputies play no part in the metropolitan executive. To be successful, municipal ecology thus requires allies at other levels to meet its aims. The Greens, for example, were unable to prevent the expansion of a motorway to the west of the city. If re-elected, building a majority at the metropolitan level more favourable to the Grenoble en commun programme will be crucial.

An example for elsewhere?

Since Éric Piolle announced his bid at the end of September, support has been growing. As in 2014, the Green party EELV, radical-left La France Insoumise, and other civil society organisations are backing the mayor’s list. The Communist Party, various green-left groups such as former presidential candidate Benoît Hamon’s Générations, MEP Raphaël Glucksmann’s movement Place Publique, and MEP Pierre Larrouturou’s Nouvelle Donne, as well as many local movements and associations, plus some socialist activists, are offering their support too.

Such a coalition should be enough to break with what has been a poor record at the ballot box since 2014. Collectively, the alliance behind Piolle is still the leading force in the city, but its electoral victories over the last six years have been meagre. At the 2017 legislative elections, the Greens and France Insoumise, as separate parties, made little impact on the presidential election and the two MPs representing Grenoble are from Emmanuel Macron’s party.

Cooperation from the outset should help avoid nasty surprises for the incumbents. Éric Piolle has repeatedly declared that, in Grenoble, “the war within the Left is behind us.” Meanwhile, the embattled Socialist Party is supporting Olivier Noblecourt, Macron’s top civil servant in charge of the fight against poverty.

With municipal elections scheduled all over France between March 15th and 22nd, the Piolle method is inspiring Greens to dream of victories in other large cities such as Besançon, Montpellier, Toulouse, Rennes, and Nantes. In the majority of these contests, EELV is betting on cooperation with citizens’ lists and, where possible, other movements on the Left. But whether or not more French cities will join Grenoble in the ranks of green cities remains to be seen.

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The Éric Piolle Effect: Grenoble’s Green Transition

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